The Washington Post
Lawyer with ties to Clinton indicted
Special counsel: Attorney lied to FBI while alleging Trump-russia links
Special counsel John Durham, tasked by the Trump administration with investigating the FBI’S role in the 2016 presidential campaign, announced Thursday the indictment of a lawyer charged with lying when he gave the bureau purportedly damaging information about then-candidate Donald Trump without disclosing his ties to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
The 27-page one-count indictment accuses attorney Michael Sussmann, a former federal prosecutor with expertise in computer cases, of having “lied about the capacity in which he was providing the allegations to the FBI” by claiming he was not representing a client when he was secretly acting on behalf of Clinton’s political team. Sussmann is scheduled to make an initial court appearance Friday morning.
The charge marks the second criminal case brought by Durham in the two years since he began examining possible misconduct or crimes at government agencies in 2016 as they pursued evidence of alleged links between Trump and Russia.
It’s unclear how much longer Durham plans to continue his work as special counsel, but Sussmann’s indictment could prolong the investigation, because he has sought to win Sussmann’s
cooperation against other individuals of interest to the special counsel, according to two people familiar with the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe Durham’s legal strategy.
Legal experts promptly cast doubt on the case’s broader significance, saying the alleged transgression seemed relatively minor given the length of time Durham’s team has been at work.
“If this is all Durham’s got, it has a feel of trying to justify his existence for the last two years,” said Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor who specialized in corruption cases. In the course of investigations, Eliason said, “there are a lot of cases that could be brought but aren’t because they are so trivial. And this seems to fall into that category to me. The indictment itself says the FBI already knew Sussmann was a lawyer for the Democratic National Committee.”
As a special counsel first appointed in a Republican administration and now working in a Democratic one, Durham occupies an unique place inside the Justice Department, largely free of the kind of supervision given most federal prosecutors. And his indictment of Sussmann, hinged on a broad application of a law typically used to charge those who lie to investigating agents, is likely to intensify the politically polarized views of his assignment.
Durham was tasked with exposing wrongdoing at the FBI or other government agencies, but the indictment instead argues that the FBI was a victim of a crime, forced to expend resources investigating digital data given to the bureau by Sussmann that ultimately proved worthless.
The charge against Sussmann, well-known in D.C. legal circles but a relatively obscure figure to the general public, is unlikely to satisfy Trump’s thirst for arrests of former senior government officials whom he blames for the Russia investigation, which overshadowed much of his presidency. Democrats are likely to greet Durham’s indictment as proof that his work has been largely fruitless, an act of appeasement for a vengeful former president.
Sussmann’s lawyers said Thursday that their client “was indicted today because of politics, not facts. The special counsel appears to be using this indictment to advance a conspiracy theory he has chosen not to actually charge. This case represents the opposite of everything the Department of Justice is supposed to stand for. Mr. Sussmann will fight this baseless and politically-inspired prosecution.”
Sussman had been working at Perkins Coie, a law firm with long ties to Democrats, but the firm issued a statement following the indictment saying that Sussmann had resigned to focus on his legal defense.
The indictment charges that in the summer of 2016, Sussmann, in coordination with an unnamed tech company executive for whom he did legal work, began exploring possible digital connections between Russia-based Alfa Bank and a computer linked to the Trump Organization.
The tech executive, according to the indictment, thought he might get a job in the Clinton administration if she won the presidency, and he worked with a number of cybersecurity experts to scour public and private data for anything that might tie Trump to Russia.
The indictment against Sussmann does not accuse the tech executive or anyone in the Clinton campaign of committing a crime.
Court papers say Sussmann and the tech executive spent weeks “acting on behalf of the Clinton Campaign to share information about the Russian Bank Data with the media and others, claiming that it demonstrated the existence of a secret communications channel between the Trump Organization” and Alfa Bank.
At the time, Sussmann represented the Democratic National Committee as it dealt with intrusions by Russian hackers, and he communicated regularly with FBI officials on that case.
The indictment details Sussmann’s exchanges with reporters to get them interested in the issue.
On Sept. 19, 2016, Sussmann brought data and analysis about the theory to James Baker, then the top lawyer at the FBI.
According to the indictment, at that meeting, Sussmann “stated falsely that he was not acting on behalf of any client,” leaving Baker to believe that Sussmann “was conveying the allegations as a good citizen and not as an advocate for any client.” Yet in Perkins Coie internal paperwork, Sussmann billed his time with Baker to the Clinton campaign, the indictment charges. He also billed much of his time on the Alfa Bank issue to the Clinton campaign, according to the indictment.
Baker passed the information along to FBI agents, who investigated and ultimately concluded there was nothing nefarious about it. The indictment said agents found the computer in question “was not owned or operated by the Trump Organization, but, rather, had been administered by a mass marketing email company that sent advertisements for Trump hotels and hundreds of other clients.”
Asked later by congressional investigators about his work on the Alfa Bank matter, Sussmann said he was acting on behalf of a respected cybersecurity researcher when he approached the FBI, but Baker told investigators that he thought Sussmann had said he was not representing any client at the time they spoke in 2016, according to the charges.
Sussmann’s lawyers said that the indictment is packed with “political bluster, innuendo, and irrelevant details,” and that the actual accusation is a false statement “allegedly made five years ago to a single witness that is unrecorded and unobserved by anyone else. The Department of Justice would ordinarily never bring such a baseless case.”
The indictment accuses attorney Michael Sussmann of having “lied about the capacity in which he was providing the allegations to the FBI.”